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Festive Fare - The Historic Flavours of Christmas

Wednesday, December 11, 2019, 16:58 Hrs  [IST]

Flavour-rich Christmas roast invariably triggers a memory of Hazaribagh with Grandad dominating the ceremony of the Boiling of the Ham. It was always done on an outdoor, wood fired, hearth.

We watched the boiler steam and bubble as the turnips, carrots, onions and parsnips rose to the top, blinked at us, went down again to surrender their flavours to the slowly evolving leg of pork. The aroma-rich steam rose and merged with the mouth-watering fragrance of baking Christmas cakes from Granny's kitchen.

Our Euro-Indian cuisine, particularly our heritage of Christmas dishes, captures the lasting impact of India on European history: particularly on its food.

History relates that in Elizabethan times, when Winter began to extend its icy claws over Europe in late October, stocks of fresh fodder diminished. Unwanted livestock had to be slaughtered and carcases were hung in barn-like rooms to air-dry. Naturally, long before Spring arrived in mid-March, the meat had a rather "high" flavour.

Then, the canny Arabs got into the act.

Their dhows, laden with spices from Kerala, enriched the merchants of Venice and, from there, spices spread into Europe as taste enhancers. Arab hakims, influenced by their Ayurvedic colleagues, also spoke of the therapeutic value of Indian spices. Flavour and hygiene: perfectly matched. Such beliefs still govern our Christmas fare today.

When the ham had been boiled, it was placed on a platter, and allowed to cool. The skin was then removed, and a frilled paper collar tied around its 'neck' to allow us to grip it easily. After that, it was crumbed to lock in its juices and, finally, it was studded with row upon row of black cloves. This was probably done to curb bacterial action by the pervasive power of clove oil because the boiled ham had to last for many post-Christmas days!

Similarly, spices also go into Christmas Cake and Plum Pudding. The Pudding is a richer version of the Cake. In Elizabethan times, when spices first staged a significant re-invasion of Europe, after the Roman one, both the cake and the pudding contained the animal fat, suet. This was an additional source of infection, giving rise to another culinary tradition. Christmas Pudding is, even today, traditionally served drenched in brandy, and then flamed. It's a sign of good fortune if the blue flame lingers till the pudding touches your plate. Brandy, as every tippler knows, is the all-purpose tonic for all ailments from a real pain-in-the-neck to an obnoxiously social one!

Even though hyper-hygienic butter is now used in place of suet, the old therapeutic practice of having the Christmas Pudding sanctified, and sterilized, by a blue flame prevails to this day.

In our 21st Century, the European Nations' dependence on spices has spread far beyond Christmas. We have relished Ginger Biscuits in Austria, stirred our chocolate drink with Cinnamon Quills in Spain and enjoyed a spicy Chicken Tikka Masala in Queen Victoria's summer palace on the Isle of Wight. "Oh, is CTM an Indian dish?" asked a member of the staff, "I always thought it was typically British!" Presumably tikka and masala are authentic Anglo-Saxon words!

But the European obsession with Indian spices did more than change its cuisine: it shook the whole world!

When the Arabs raised the prices of their imported spices to more than the markets could bear, it prodded the Europeans to search for their own sea-routes to the Spice Lands. There, they established their trading companies. These evolved into global Empires founded on highly exploitive trade practices. Inevitably, the Empires imploded under their own greed, freeing their chained nations. Many of these unshackled countries, intoxicated by their liberty, morphed into feral Dictatorships and the bureaucratic-heavy European Union. Now these Debris of Empire seem to be gasping for air against the rising tides of digitally-empowered citizens, world-wide.

Since we have come this far, let's take a deep swig of the flavoursome, spice-rich, OT. It is the so-called Other Thing brewed to carefully-guarded family recipes in many Anglo-Homes at Christmas. Powered by our own OT-stimulated imaginations, we see a future world patterned on the successful Swiss structure of largely independent states bound together in a digital-linked Federation: Digiration or perhaps a Digocracy! Merry Christmas!

(The Views expressed within this column are the opinion of the authors, and may not necessarily be endorsed by the publication)

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